What Makes a Killer a Killer?

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By Caitlin Macdonald

An in-depth piece on the criminal mind

“I was born with the devil in me. I could not help the fact that I was a murderer, no more than the poet can help the inspiration to sing.” These are the words of H. H. Holmes, an American serial killer that is suspected to have killed more than 200 people. But why do people kill? Are they all psychopaths? Is there always underlying mental issues? Or are they just all pure evil?

“If we knew why people killed then we would be able to stop them dead in their tracks” says Thomas Gallacher, a psychologist who has worked with high risk and serious individuals for over 10 years. “There are so many different types of explanations for why people do it. One of the definitions, which is very important, is a biological definition of why people kill, is it something about how their brain is operating or is it something about what goes on in their body that makes people kill, so, for example, is there some sort of genetic coding for killing or is there something about how you are made up as an individual”. He continues with: “The difficulty about that is if there is something biological about why you kill, that is for example if you have, say you are mentally unwell and you have some sort of genetic defect does that make you more predisposed to killing?” Every murder is different and every murderer has a different reason for why they did it. Arguably if it is underlying biological factors that lead someone to kill this is a lot more terrifying as there is no telling when that person may snap and commit terrible crimes. However, does this make them a psychopath? A psychopath is someone that suffers from a chronic mental disorder and shows abnormal or violent behaviour. Psychopaths usually show signs of antisocial personality disorder. Common behaviours that accompany this disorder include a tendency to take risks, reckless behaviour and being deceitful with frequent lying. Statistics show that one in every 25 people are psychopaths. Does that mean one in every 25 people are destined to kill? Lisa Binnie, a criminal justice social worker says: “There are cases where they do meet that criteria but I wouldn’t say it’s every single time, I think there’s a whole load of other factors and outlines that can lead to a murder happening. There is research that shows that people that have become involved in crime and in my experience as well people that have suffered abuse, neglect, parental domestic violence, even having a relative in prison, a brain injury, care experience, different things like that can lead to them becoming more likely to be involved in violence which can ultimately lead to murder”. With one in four women and one in six men statistically proven to go through domestic abuse in their lifetime it is not surprising that sometimes they just can’t take it anymore and the constant abuse causes them to act out in violence and take the life of their abusive partner, “Victims of domestic violence who kill their partners would be an example of that, there are different circumstances, different settings people find themselves in and they maybe murder somebody”

When discussing killers and murderers, your mind makes you think of those famous serial killers and the horrible people you read about in the news, however, no one ever thinks to talk about soldiers. Thomas Gallacher says: “The first problem with trying to understand why people kill is about the definition of what killing is, that’s always been one of those difficult areas because there’s the legal definition of course which is taking someone’s life unlawfully and there’s also about the cultural definition of killing. You’re allowed to kill people if you are a soldier in the army because you are state-sanctioned to do so if you are sent out” says Mr Gallacher. However, he also adds that there are cultural differences when it comes to this: “One countries definition of killers could be another’s definition of a martyr, for example, you had a lot of that with ISIS. They were killing people and slaughtering whoever it was in Afghanistan and what was happening was that we were looking at that as murder, but that country saw it as one way of freedom fighting”. Children in some societies and cultures are exposed to violent behaviour at an early age so they can attempt to make the young and easily influenced natural killers as behaviour is learnt from the environment through the process of observation, those children in ISIS after being exposed to violent behaviour will assume it is normal and acceptable to behave in such a way. Thomas Gallacher adds: “Each culture defines what they find as evil by what their cultural norms is and what society defines it as such, so my idea of what evil is might be very different to what your idea of what evil is. What we do have in every country is a legal definition of what is criminal and what the definition of killing is, so we have to go right back to what a definition of killing is defined by each country”.

Although some kill by accident and had never meant to commit such an awful crime, there is, of course, those that kill for joy and because they want to, such as serial killers. “If someone has been violent in the past then they’re more likely to do it in the future particularly if it’s more frequent and it’s often, and that explains a serial killer for example, so if they do it once they are more likely to do it again” says Mr Gallacher. However, is it possible for people to turn their life around and forget their past? Lisa Binnie added: “I definitely think it’s possible for people to change, through the appropriate intervention, obviously if somebody does kill somebody that comes at a cost regardless of what the circumstances were if it is a murder that they are convicted of it’s likely they’ll get life and they’ll be supervised for life and I’ve got experience of supervising people who are serving a prison sentence so in a prison setting but also at the other end”.

There have been many theories over the year as to why people kill. “What was suggested was that a low hanging brow or eyes widely parted was much more of an indicator of a killer than anything else. All of this was just fake and disproved, you can imagine the difficult thesis of bringing it down to how you look, and so many individuals were being marked as criminals who weren’t or marked as murderers who weren’t. These theories went on for quite a significant number of years during the 16th, 17th and 18th century and it led to a lot of people being generalised in terms of looking offending than anything else which was always a big problem until the 19th century moving into the 20th century when we were beginning to see that it was actually a multi factually explanation in individuals who kill and that it wasn’t specifically one particular area that led towards it and that’s quite typically most of the disciplines in that the multi factual explanations tend to be much more acceptable as we move certainly towards the future, it leads us out of that difficulty of just concentrating on one particular issue would give you the idea why someone would do it” says Thomas Gallacher. Another theory which many assumed was the reason people killed was that those born with an extra Y chromosome was an indicator for a killer as supposedly this made the individual more violent and more prone to committing crimes, however, with lack of evidence to support this theory, that’s what it remained, a theory.

It has been shown that childhood experiences are very big indicators of why people kill. Lisa Binnie said: “That kind of leads into the nature-nurture stuff. Although it’s an interplay of both probably it is more the nurture which comes into the adverse childhood experiences as well as how people are brought up, their social factors and the environment that they are brought up in. When you’re looking back at people’s childhoods and upbringings you quite often see patterns in terms of, parental abuse or maybe they’ve not had a very good role model, they’ve had a parent in prison, different things like that. I suppose if you’re looking as well at a child, say their dad is in prison, they view his violence and crimes as a way of coping and managing difficult situations and then they can internalise that as being normal and they don’t have other coping mechanisms for dealing with stress and different things like that”. Research has shown that due to the brain undergoing the most rapid development during the first years of life, childhood experiences will determine whether or not your brain and mental health is sturdy or fragile.

Peter Manuel was a serial killer in Glasgow during the 1950s who was convicted of murdering seven people across Scotland before he was hung in Barlinnie Prison. Thomas Gallacher adds: “What they had discovered was that he had an exceptionally difficult background of abusive relationships and abuse as a child, difficulty growing up, biological problems with how he was developing, that he had difficulty in forming relationships, there was lots of different things that led individuals to look at perhaps it was something about how people are reared that is perhaps something in his background that led him to more likely be a killer, so if we knew that then perhaps we could look for those commonalities in other criminals who kill and see if that had happened in their background. Now that has had quite a significant amount of success, that is that we have looked at a number of backgrounds of individuals who have killed and we have seen in most of them that they have had particularly difficult backgrounds and they have got a lot of past issues in their life which have been unresolved”.

Is it possible to be born a killer? Do some just come into the world with a dark nature and so they are inevitably going to kill? “Do I think they’re born killers? No, I don’t believe that people are born killers. A good example of that is, if you look at the boys involved in the James Bulger case”. James Bulgar was a 2-year-old boy that was abducted by two 10-year-old boys then tortured and killed in England in 1993. “The boys that were involved in that killing were two young boys who did it and what was plastered all over the papers was ‘born killers’ cause people were amazed, they were absolutely shocked that children could go out and do such things. What we discovered was that violence in their family was very typical, that from day to day their response from their parents and almost everything towards them was violence. They really in a sense didn’t get any understanding about the dangers of violence and what the repercussions of carrying out a violent act were because as children your sense of consequential thinking is not well defined, neither is your understanding of what the repercussions of what your behaviour is. So, what we discovered from all of that was really that the background was quite significant determining factor for what happened next, so in terms of being born a killer, we have largely debunked that notion of being born evil” added Thomas Gallacher.

As our childhood is the roots of our existence, does that mean our past always determines our future? Is there no return once your childhood experiences have altered your future self?

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